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The Project Gutenberg EBook of Curiosities of Literature, Vol. 1 (of 3), by Isaac D'Israeli
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Title: Curiosities of Literature, Vol. 1 (of 3)
Author: Isaac D'Israeli
Editor: The Earl Of Beaconsfield
Release Date: May 26, 2007 [EBook #21615] Last updated: January 16, 2009
Language: English
Character set encoding: ISO-8859-1
Produced by Jonathan Ingram, Janet Blenkinship and the Online Distributed Proofreading Team at
A New Edition,
This is the first collected edition of a series of works which have separately attained to a great popularity: volumes that have been always delightful to the young and ardent inquirer after knowledge. They offer as a whole a diversified miscellany of literary, artistic, and political history, of critical disquisition and biographic anecdote, such as it is believed cannot be elsewhere found gathered together in a form so agreeable and so attainable. To this edition is appended a Life of the Author by his son, also original notes, which serve to illustrate or to correct the text, where more recent discoveries have brought to light facts unknown when these volumes were originally published.
LO NDO N, 1881.
[Pg vii]
The traditionary notion that the life of a man of letters is necessarily deficient in incident, appears to have originated in a misconception of the essential nature of human action. The life of every man is full of incidents, but the incidents are insignificant, because they do not affect his speci es; and in general the importance of every occurrence is to be measured by the degree with which it is recognised by mankind. An author may influence the fortunes of the world to as great an extent as a statesman or a warrior; and the deeds and performances by which this influence is created and exercised, may rank in their interest and importance with the decisions of great Congresses, or the skilful valour of a memorable field. M. de Voltaire was certainly a gre ater Frenchman than
Cardinal Fleury, the Prime Minister of France in his time. His actions were more important; and it is certainly not too much to maintain that the exploits of Homer, Aristotle, Dante, or my Lord Bacon, were as considerable events as anything that occurred at Actium, Lepanto, or Blenheim. A Book may be as great a thing as a battle, and there are systems of philosophy that have produced as great revolutions as any that have disturbed even the social and political existence of our centuries.
The life of the author, whose character and career we are venturing to review, extended far beyond the allotted term of man: and, perhaps, no existence of equal duration ever exhibited an uniformity more sustained. The strong bent of his infancy was pursued through youth, matured in manhood, and maintained without decay to an advanced old age. In the biographic spell, no ingredient is more magical than predisposition. How pure, and native, and indigenous it was in the character of this writer, can only be proper ly appreciated by an acquaintance with the circumstances amid which he w as born, and by being able to estimate how far they could have directed o r developed his earliest inclinations.
My grandfather, who became an English Denizen in 17 48, was an Italian descendant from one of those Hebrew families whom the Inquisition forced to emigrate from the Spanish Peninsula at the end of the fifteenth century, and who found a refuge in the more tolerant territories of the Venetian Republic. His ancestors had dropped their Gothic surname on their settlement in the Terra Firma, and grateful to the God of Jacob who had sus tained them through unprecedented trials and guarded them through unhea rd-of perils, they assumed the name of DISRAELI, a name never borne before or since by any other family, in order that their race might be for ever recognised. Undisturbed and unmolested, they flourished as merchants for mo re than two centuries under the protection of the lion of St. Mark, which was but just, as the patron saint of the Republic was himself a child of Israel. But towards the middle of the eighteenth century, the altered circumstances of England, favourable, as it was then supposed, to commerce and religious liberty, attracted the attention of my great-grandfather to this island, and he resolved that the youngest of his two sons, Benjamin, the "son of his right hand," should settle in a country where the dynasty seemed at length established, through the recent failure of Prince Charles Edward, and where public opinion appeared d efinitively adverse to persecution on matters of creed and conscience.
The Jewish families who were then settled in England were few, though, from their wealth and other circumstances, they were far from unimportant. They were all of them Sephardim, that is to say, children of Israel, who had never quitted the shores of the Midland Ocean, until Torquamada had driven them from their pleasant residences and rich estates in Arragon, and Andalusia, and Portugal, to seek greater blessings, even than a cl ear atmosphere and a glowing sun, amid the marshes of Holland and the fogs of Britain. Most of these families, who held themselves aloof from the Hebrews of Northern Europe, then only occasionally stealing into England, as from an inferior caste, and whose synagogue was reserved only for Sephardim, are now extinct; while the branch of the great family, which, notwithstanding their own sufferings from prejudice, they had the hardihood to look down upon, have achieved an amount of wealth and consideration which the Sephardim, even with th e patronage of Mr.
[Pg viii]
[Pg ix]
Pelham, never could have contemplated. Nevertheless, at the time when my grandfather settled in England, and when Mr. Pelham, who was very favourable to the Jews, was Prime Minister, there might be found, among other Jewish families flourishing in this country, the Villa Reals, who brought wealth to these shores almost as great as their name, though that i s the second in Portugal, and who have twice allied themselves with the Engli sh aristocracy, the Medinas—the Laras, who were our kinsmen—and the Mendez da Costas, who, I believe, still exist.
Whether it were that my grandfather, on his arrival , was not encouraged by those to whom he had a right to look up,—which is often our hard case in the outset of life,—or whether he was alarmed at the unexpected consequences of Mr. Pelham's favourable disposition to his countrymen in the disgraceful repeal of the Jew Bill, which occurred a very few years after his arrival in this country, I know not; but certainly he appears never to have cordially or intimately mixed with his community. This tendency to alienation was, no doubt, subsequently encouraged by his marriage, which took place in 1765. My grandmother, the beautiful daughter of a family who had suffered much from persecution, had imbibed that dislike for her race which the vain are too apt to adopt when they find that they are born to public contempt. The indignant feeling that should be reserved for the persecutor, in the mortification of their disturbed sensibility, is too often visited on the victim; and the cause of annoyance is recognised not in the ignorant malevolence of the powerful, but in the conscientious conviction of the innocent sufferer. Seventeen years, however, el apsed before my grandfather entered into this union, and during that interval he had not been idle. He was only eighteen when he commenced his career, and when a great responsibility devolved upon him. He was not unequal to it. He was a man of ardent character; sanguine, courageous, speculative, and fortunate; with a temper which no disappointment could disturb, and a brain, amid reverses, full of resource. He made his fortune in the midway of life, and settled near Enfield, where he formed an Italian garden, entertained his friends, played whist with Sir Horace Mann, who was his great acquaintance, and who had known his brother at Venice as a banker, eat macaroni which w as dressed by the Venetian Consul, sang canzonettas, and notwithstanding a wife who never pardoned him for his name, and a son who disappointed all his plans, and who to the last hour of his life was an enigma to him, lived till he was nearly ninety, and then died in 1817, in the full enjoyment of prolonged existence.
My grandfather retired from active business on the eve of that great financial epoch, to grapple with which his talents were well adapted; and when the wars and loans of the Revolution were about to create those families of millionaires, in which he might probably have enrolled his own. That, however, was not our destiny. My grandfather had only one child, and nature had disqualified him, from his cradle, for the busy pursuits of men.
A pale, pensive child, with large dark brown eyes, and flowing hair, such as may be beheld in one of the portraits annexed to these volumes, had grown up beneath this roof of worldly energy and enjoyment, indicating even in his infancy, by the whole carriage of his life, that he was of a different order from those among whom he lived. Timid, susceptible, lost in reverie, fond of solitude, or seeking no better company than a book, the years had stolen on, till he had arrived at that mournful period of boyhood when eccentricities excite attention
[Pg x]
[Pg xi]
and command no sympathy. In the chapter on Predispo sition, in the most [1] delightful of his works, my father has drawn from his own, though his unacknowledged feelings, immortal truths. Then commenced the age of domestic criticism. His mother, not incapable of deep affections, but so mortified by her social position that she lived until eighty without indulging in a tender expression, did not recognise in her only offspring a being qualified to control or vanquish his impending fate. His existence only served to swell the aggregate of many humiliating particulars. It was not to her a source of joy, or sympathy, or solace. She foresaw for her child only a future of degradation. Having a strong, clear mind, without any imagination, she believed that she beheld an inevitable doom. The tart remark and the contemptuous comment on her part, elicited, on the other, all the irritability of the poetic idiosyncrasy. After frantic ebullitions, for which, when the circumstances were analysed by an o rdinary mind, there seemed no sufficient cause, my grandfather always i nterfered to soothe with good-tempered commonplaces, and promote peace. He w as a man who thought that the only way to make people happy was to make them a present. He took it for granted that a boy in a passion wanted a toy or a guinea. At a later date, when my father ran away from home, and after some wanderings was brought back, found lying on a tombstone in Hackney churchyard, he embraced him, and gave him a pony.
In this state of affairs, being sent to school in the neighbourhood, was a rather agreeable incident. The school was kept by a Scotchman, one Morison, a good man, and not untinctured with scholarship, and it i s possible that my father might have reaped some advantage from this change; but the school was too near home, and his mother, though she tormented his existence, was never content if he were out of her sight. His delicate h ealth was an excuse for converting him, after a short interval, into a day scholar; then many days of attendance were omitted; finally, the solitary walk home through Mr. Mellish's park was dangerous to the sensibilities that too often exploded when they encountered on the arrival at the domestic hearth a scene which did not harmonise with the fairy-land of reverie.
The crisis arrived, when, after months of unusual abstraction and irritability, my father produced a poem. For the first time, my gran dfather was seriously alarmed. The loss of one of his argosies, uninsured, could not have filled him with more blank dismay. His idea of a poet was formed from one of the prints of Hogarth hanging in his room, where an unfortunate w ight in a garret was inditing an ode to riches, while dunned for his mil k-score. Decisive measures were required to eradicate this evil, and to preven t future disgrace—so, as seems the custom when a person is in a scrape, it was resolved that my father should be sent abroad, where a new scene and a new language might divert his mind from the ignominious pursuit which so fata lly attracted him. The unhappy poet was consigned like a bale of goods to my grandfather's correspondent at Amsterdam, who had instructions to place him at some collegium of repute in that city. Here were passed some years not without profit, though his tutor was a great impostor, very neglectful of his pupils, and both unable and disinclined to guide them in severe studies. This preceptor was a man of letters, though a wretched writer, with a go od library, and a spirit inflamed with all the philosophy of the eighteenth century, then (1780-1) about to bring forth and bear its long-matured fruits. The intelligence and disposition
[Pg xii]
[Pg xiii]
of my father attracted his attention, and rather interested him. He taught his charge little, for he was himself generally occupied in writing bad odes, but he gave him free warren in his library, and before his pupil was fifteen, he had read the works of Voltaire and had dipped into Bayle. Strange that the characteristics of a writer so born and brought up should have been so essentially English; not merely from his mastery over our language, but from his keen and profound sympathy with all that concerned the literary and political history of our country at its most important epoch.
When he was eighteen, he returned to England a disciple of Rousseau. He had exercised his imagination during the voyage in idealizing the interview with his mother, which was to be conducted on both sides with sublime pathos. His other parent had frequently visited him during his absence. He was prepared to throw himself on his mother's bosom, to bedew her hands with his tears, and to stop her own with his lips; but, when he entered, his strange appearance, his gaunt figure, his excited manners, his long hair, a nd his unfashionable costume, only filled her with a sentiment of tender aversion; she broke into derisive laughter, and noticing his intolerable garments, she reluctantly lent him her cheek. Whereupon Emile, of course, went into heroics, wept, sobbed, and finally, shut up in his chamber, composed an impass ioned epistle. My grandfather, to soothe him, dwelt on the united solicitude of his parents for his welfare, and broke to him their intention, if it were agreeable to him, to place him in the establishment of a great merchant at Bordeaux. My father replied that he had written a poem of considerable length, which he wished to publish, against Commerce, which was the corrupter of man. In eight-and-forty hours confusion again reigned in this household, and all from a want of psychological perception in its master and mistress.
My father, who had lost the timidity of his childhood, who, by nature, was very impulsive, and indeed endowed with a degree of vola tility which is only witnessed in the south of France, and which never d eserted him to his last hour, was no longer to be controlled. His conduct w as decisive. He enclosed his poem to Dr. Johnson, with an impassioned statem ent of his case, complaining, which he ever did, that he had never found a counsellor or literary friend. He left his packet himself at Bolt Court, w here he was received by Mr. Francis Barber, the doctor's well-known black servant, and told to call again in a week. Be sure that he was very punctual; but the packet was returned to him unopened, with a message that the illustrious docto r was too ill to read anything. The unhappy and obscure aspirant, who received this disheartening message, accepted it, in his utter despondency, as a mechanical excuse. But, alas! the cause was too true; and, a few weeks after, on that bed, beside which the voice of Mr. Burke faltered, and the tender spirit of Benett Langton was ever vigilant, the great soul of Johnson quitted earth.
But the spirit of self-confidence, the resolution to struggle against his fate, the paramount desire to find some sympathising sage—some guide, philosopher, and friend—was so strong and rooted in my father, that I observed, a few weeks ago, in a magazine, an original letter, written by him about this time to Dr. Vicesimus Knox, full of high-flown sentiments, reading indeed like a romance of Scudery, and entreating the learned critic to receive him in his family, and give him the advantage of his wisdom, his taste, and his erudition.
[Pg xiv]
[Pg xv]
With a home that ought to have been happy, surround ed with more than comfort, with the most good-natured father in the world, and an agreeable man; and with a mother whose strong intellect, under ordinary circumstances, might have been of great importance to him; my father, though himself of a very sweet disposition, was most unhappy. His parents looked upon him as moonstruck, while he himself, whatever his aspirations, was conscious that he had done nothing to justify the eccentricity of his course, or the violation of all prudential considerations in which he daily indulged. In these perplexities, the usual alternative was again had recourse to—absence; he was sent abroad, to travel in France, which the peace then permitted, visit some friends, see Paris, and then proceed to Bordeaux if he felt inclined. My father travelled in France, and then proceeded to Paris, where he remained till the eve of great events in that capital. This was a visit recollected with satisfaction. He lived with learned men and moved in vast libraries, and returned in the earlier part of 1788, with some little knowledge of life, and with a considerable quantity of books.
At this time Peter Pindar flourished in all the wantonness of literary riot. He was at the height of his flagrant notoriety. The novelty and the boldness of his style carried the million with him. The most exalted station was not exempt from his audacious criticism, and learned institutions trembled at the sallies whose ribaldry often cloaked taste, intelligence, and good sense. His "Odes to the Academicians," which first secured him the ear of the town, were written by one who could himself guide the pencil with skill and feeling, and who, in the form of a mechanic's son, had even the felicity to discover the vigorous genius of Opie. The mock-heroic which invaded with success the sacred recesses of the palace, and which was fruitlessly menaced by Secretaries of State, proved a reckless intrepidity, which is apt to be popular with "the general." The powerful and the learned quailed beneath the lash with an affected contempt which scarcely veiled their tremor. In the meantime, as in the latter days of the Empire, the barbarian ravaged the country, while the pale-faced patricians were inactive within the walls. No one offered resistance.
There appeared about this time a satire "On the Abuse of Satire." The verses were polished and pointed; a happy echo of that style of Mr. Pope which still lingered in the spell-bound ear of the public. Peculiarly they offered a contrast to the irregular effusions of the popular assailant whom they in turn assailed, for the object of their indignant invective was the bard of the "Lousiad." The poem was anonymous, and was addressed to Dr. Warton in l ines of even classic grace. Its publication was appropriate. There are moments when every one is inclined to praise, especially when the praise of a new pen may at the same time revenge the insults of an old one.
But if there could be any doubt of the success of this new hand, it was quickly removed by the conduct of Peter Pindar himself. As is not unusual with persons of his habits, Wolcot was extremely sensitive, and, brandishing a tomahawk, always himself shrank from a scratch. This was show n some years afterwards by his violent assault on Mr. Gifford, with a bludgeon, in a bookseller's shop, because the author of the "Baviad and Mæviad" had presumed to castigate the great lampooner of the age. In the present instance, the furious Wolcot leapt to the rash conclusion, that the author of the satire was no less a personage than Mr. Hayley, and he assailed the elegant author of the "Triumphs of Temper" in a virulent pasquinade. This ill-considered movement of his adversary of course
[Pg xvi]
achieved the complete success of the anonymous writer.
My father, who came up to town to read the newspape rs at the St. James's Coffee-house, found their columns filled with extracts from the fortunate effusion of the hour, conjectures as to its writer, and much gossip respecting Wolcot and Hayley. He returned to Enfield laden with the journals, and, presenting them to his parents, broke to them the intelligence, that at length he was not only an author, but a successful one.
He was indebted to this slight effort for something almost as agreeable as the public recognition of his ability, and that was the acquaintance, and almost immediately the warm personal friendship, of Mr. Pye. Mr. Pye was the head of an ancient English family that figured in the Parli aments and struggles of the Stuarts; he was member for the County of Berkshire, where his ancestral seat of Faringdon was situate, and at a later period (1790) became Poet Laureat. In those days, when literary clubs did not exist, and when even political ones were extremely limited and exclusive in their character, the booksellers' shops were social rendezvous. Debrett's was the chief haunt of the Whigs; Hatchard's, I believe, of the Tories. It was at the latter hous e that my father made the acquaintance of Mr. Pye, then publishing his translation of Aristotle's Poetics, and so strong was party feeling at that period, that one day, walking together down Piccadilly, Mr. Pye, stopping at the door of D ebrett, requested his companion to go in and purchase a particular pamphlet for him, adding that if he had the audacity to enter, more than one person would tread upon his toes.
My father at last had a friend. Mr. Pye, though double his age, was still a young man, and the literary sympathy between them was complete. Unfortunately, the member for Berkshire was a man rather of an elegant turn of mind, than one of that energy and vigour which a youth required for a companion at that moment. Their tastes and pursuits were perhaps a little too similar. They addressed poetical epistles to each other, and were, reciprocally, too gentle critics. But Mr. Pye was a most amiable and accomplished man, a fine classical scholar, and a master of correct versification. He paid a visit to Enfield, and by his influence hastened a conclusion at which my grandfather was just arriving, to wit, that he would no longer persist in the fruitless effort of converting a poet into a merchant, and that content with the independence he had realised, he would abandon his dreams of founding a dynasty of financiers. From this moment all disquietude ceased beneath this always well-meaning, though often perplexed, roof, while my father, enabled amply to gratify his darling passion of book-collecting, passed his days in tranquil study, and in the society of congenial spirits.
His new friend introduced him almost immediately to Mr. James Pettit Andrews, a Berkshire gentleman of literary pursuits, and who se hospitable table at Brompton was the resort of the best literary society of the day. Here my father was a frequent guest, and walking home one night together from this house, where they had both dined, he made the acquaintance of a young poet, which soon ripened into intimacy, and which throughout sixty years, notwithstanding many changes of life, never died away. This youthful poet had already gained laurels, though he was only three or four years older than my father, but I am not at this moment quite aware whether his brow was yet encircled with the amaranthine wreath of the "Pleasures of Memory."
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Some years after this, great vicissitudes unhappily occurred in the family of Mr. Pye. He was obliged to retire from Parliament, and to sell his family estate of Faringdon. His Majesty had already, on the death of Thomas Warton, nominated him Poet Laureat, and after his retiremen t from Parliament, the government which he had supported, appointed him a Commissioner of Police. It was in these days that his friend, Mr. Penn, of Stoke Park, in Buckinghamshire, presented him with a cottage worth y of a poet on his beautiful estate; and it was thus my father became acquainted with the amiable descendant of the most successful of colonisers, and with that classic domain which the genius of Gray, as it were, now haunts, and has for ever hallowed, and from which he beheld with fond and musing eye, those
Distant spires and antique towers,
that no one can now look upon without remembering him. It was amid these rambles in Stoke Park, amid the scenes of Gray's ge nius, the elegiac churchyard, and the picturesque fragments of the Long Story, talking over the deeds of "Great Rebellion" with the descendants of Cavaliers and Parliament-men, that my father first imbibed that feeling for the county of Buckingham, which induced him occasionally to be a dweller in i ts limits, and ultimately, more than a quarter of a century afterwards, to establish his household gods in its heart. And here, perhaps, I may be permitted to mention a circumstance, which is indeed trifling, and yet, as a coincidence, not, I think, without interest. Mr. Pye was the great-grandson of Sir Robert Pye, of Bradenham, who married Anne, the eldest daughter of Mr. Hampden. How little could my father dream, sixty years ago, that he would pass the last quarter of his life in the mansion-house of Bradenham; that his name would become intimately connected with the county of Buckingham; and that his own remains would be interred in the vault of the chancel of Bradenham Church, among the coffins of the descendants of the Hampdens and the Pyes. All which should teach us that whatever may be our natural bent, there is a power in the disposal of events greater than human will.
It was about two years after his first acquaintance with Mr. Pye, that my father, being then in his twenty-fifth year, influenced by the circle in which he then lived, gave an anonymous volume to the press, the fate of which he could little have foreseen. The taste for literary history was then of recent date in England. It was developed by Dr. Johnson and the Wartons, who were the true founders of that elegant literature in which France had so richly preceded us. The fashion for literary anecdote prevailed at the end of the last century. Mr. Pettit Andrews, assisted by Mr. Pye and Captain Grose, and shortly afterwards, his friend, Mr. Seward, in his "Anecdotes of Distinguished Persons," had both of them produced ingenious works, which had experience d public favour. But these volumes were rather entertaining than substantial, and their interest in many instances was necessarily fleeting; all which made Mr. Rogers observe, that the world was far gone in its anecdotage.
While Mr. Andrews and his friend were hunting for p ersonal details in the recollections of their contemporaries, my father maintained one day, that the most interesting of miscellanies might be drawn up by a well-read man from the library in which he lived. It was objected, on the other hand, that such a work would be a mere compilation, and could not succeed with its dead matter in
[Pg xix]
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